Pope John Paul II’s Memory and Identity, released just last week, blames the Enlightenment for the moral collapse of the 20th century. After all, those 18th-century insights placed reason above faith, individual freedom above service to God. “If a man can decide alone without God what is good and what is evil,” the pope writes, “he can also decide that a group of people must be annihilated as happened during Nazism, as happened under Communism, and could still happen today.”
Well, you’ve got to give the church credit for consistency. Half a millennium after Catholic authorities sanctioned Spain’s destruction of indigenous people in the Americas and endorsed the African slave trade, they still don’t seem to recognize that the decision to annihilate can be made just as easily by people taking guidance from the Almighty.
The French playwright Jean-Claude Carrière offers that lesson in The Controversy of Valladolid, a staging of a Vatican debate that took place in 1550 over the question of whether the indigenous people of the Americas were human beings. Bartolomé de Las Casas (Gerry Bamman) brings eyewitness accounts of Spanish massacres, rapes, and child murder as he argues that the church must embrace the “Indians” as “brothers in Christ.” Sepulveda (Steven Skybell) cites Scripture and Aristotle in seeking to prove that “God created them for us. He waited until our victory over the Moors was complete before guiding us to these new shores. And He willed them to submit to us.”
The drama in this 100-minute disputation has to reside in the twists and bends of logic—not in the prodding and poking of an Indian couple and their child brought in by the Pope’s Legate for examination, nor in the forced interruptions of a clown (meant to determine whether the Indians have the capacity for laughter). Debate, as a form, can certainly rise above a theatrical simmer, but Carrière’s competitors are drawn too schematically. We might be annoyed that Bartolomé romanticizes the Indians, ignoring, for instance, their practice of human sacrifice, but we never doubt he is right. (Nor does he. With well-placed sighs and sputtering outbursts, Bamman captures his sanctimoniousness perfectly.) As for Sepulveda, we reject him from beginning to end. Though Skybell evokes the smug sharpness of Alan Dershowitz, we never find ourselves caught in Sepulveda’s moral contortionism.
Neither, in the end, does the legate (Josef Sommer), especially when he’s reminded of an alternative way to provide free labor for the empire: with the peoples of Africa, “who are much closer to animals.” Sommer breaks into a benign little grin as this conclusion is announced by the legate’s assistant. That sweet smile crosses his face throughout the proceedings. It looks as guileless as a baby’s, and it should: Nothing weighs on his conscience.